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Dave Collerton

Photo Editing on a Budget - Luminar 2018 Windows

Photo Editing on a Budget - Luminar 2018 Windows

Luminar 2018 from Skylum is a new photo editor offering big promises. Although many will argue that at the moment at least. it doesn't really compete favourably with Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop, others, myself included, have been getting into the software and using it to good effect.

Now, before I go on let me get a couple of key pieces of information out of the way. Today, Luminar costs just £64 to buy outright and this does include a number of useful extras. Luminar 2018 is also available for Mac where it has a slightly longer presence in the market place. For this reason, some key features available on the Mac version are not currently available on the Windows version. Originally preferring to use Facebook as a support mechanism, Skylum have now moved support to their website with forums split into Mac and Windows usage. This is because some of the issues experienced by users don't necessarily overlap. After a fairly rocky start for the Windows version its capabilities have improved dramatically in recent months.

Given my introduction, is Luminar worth the cost? Personally yes, especially if you are looking for an intuitive photo editor that will grow as you do. Will it suit everyone? Not necessarily today. Undoubtadly some Adobe users will take some shifting although the recent move to a subscription model has resulted in a lot of dissatisfaction with the direction Adobe has chosen to take. Not everyone want to spend £10+ each  month on their editing software irrespective of how good it is. With Luminar, and other products of a similar type including ON1 Photo Raw and DxO PhotoLab, the "buy it now" approach means that it's simply a one off hit. Minor upgrades are provided free and you only really need to pay the upgrade cost as and when you feel you need it. At the moment, all Luminar 2018 Windows upgrades are maintenance upgrades so are free, primarily because of some glaring ommissions from the software on release. The next major maintenance upgrade is at the end of this month (April 2018) when some significant improvements are expected. In the meantime, Luminar is a very useable and capable editor in the right hands and I tend to hear less and less negative issues as users become more proficient. We'll cover more of the pros and cons as we move forward with this review.

Luminar 2018 Windows version

So, let's take a first look at the Luminar interface. As shown in the above image, this consists of 3 panels, the central panel housing the image you are working on, the lower panel contains a number of presets in one of the many catagories you can select from, and the final panel on the right contains some information on the image e.g. focal length, aperture and ISO plus a histogram. Also in the right hand panel are a list of filters that can be individually selected and grouped plus a workspace where you can stack and layer filters to create your final image. Above the central image are some additional controls such as zoom, image comparison preview, undo, history and some basic editing tools which currently include Crop, Clone & Stamp and Erase. The main menu top left provides the ability to open, save and export your image. Export allows you to choose variants such as TIFF, PNG or JPG. There is currently no ability to export to applications such as Facebook but this might come in future.

While it is possible to load images in JPEG format in Luminar you are most likely to load RAW files such as CR2, RW2 or NEF depending on the cameras you own. I have cameras from Canon, Panasonic and Nikon so all three RAW formats are handy for me. Working with RAW format means that you have access to a lot more information to work with than JPEG so is a better place to start working with your images. This is demonstrated by the fact that if you open a JPEG one of the key development tools, RAW Develop, is not available to you. At the moment this is perhaps not hugely detrimental but as time goes on we do expect this filter to be greatly improved with the inclusion of automatic lens / camera corrections and some intelligent manipulation of parameters such as exposure, contrast, highlights, midtones and shadows. There is also a transform feature which is designed to improve horizontals and verticles. At the moment it is necessary to manually adjust these parameters but we all hope to see big improvement to RAW Develop in the late April release due soon.

With regards a start point for your edits, many people will jump straight in and begin to apply filters manually that they have good experience with. While this is for some as quick as any other approach, new users often prefer to choose from the many presets available to them. Presets, for those not familiar with the term, are basically a group of filters which work together to produce a particular look. For example, some presets convert colour to B&W, some soften the image, some harden the image, some enhance colours and some desaturate. There are already some 100 different presets to choose from and more become available almost weekly thanks to the development team at Skylum, and to a highly competent team of 3rd party developers and Skylum Ambassaders.

Presets from the Travel Catagory with Dull No More selected

In the image above I have applied the preset Dull No More from the Travel Category. This automatically lifts various parameters such as clarity, structure and tone whilst removing any colour cast on the image due to the lighting and conditions on the day. In addition, I rotated the image so that the horizon, in this case seashore, was horizontal and I also applied some highlights to her hair using Dodge & Burn, one of my favourite editing tools. Finally, I applied the Accent Ai-Filter to lift brightness and slightly enhance the colour. For an image such as this one, over saturation would be disasterous so I have taken great care to try to maintain hue, saturation and luminosity and I think that the final result is a simple yet effective representation of what I saw and recorded on that day.

Another nice although not unique feature of Luminar are LUTs. LUTs or Look Up Tables as they are more correctly known, allow you to apply a new look to your photo in seconds. A LUT is essentially a digital file that transforms and exports the color and tone of your image in your source file to a new destination state.  For example, you can use a LUT to convert a modern digital photo to the color and tone of an older film stock.  Or perhaps to convert between a color image to an aged black and white treatment. So, a LUT essentially transforms tone and color based upon settings chosen by the creator of the LUT. Using a LUT is essentially the same as using a preset, you simply load your photo, ideally in a flat RAW format, and apply your desired LUT. This results in an immediate change to your photo. As an example, in the image below I have applied a LUT to the image of the guy playing with the click balls in the top image.

RAW image from Panasonic GX-80 converted using LUT Candelight from Skylum. No other processing applied

If you compare this image to the one at the top of this article you can see that there have been some significant changes in colour and tone. This is a one-click modification. I haven't applied any additional filters to the image. The use of LUTs and Presets allows practically anyone to create stunning, creative images in minutes rather than hours. And by applying additional filters, you can take your image anywhere you want.

With all of this creative capability, is Luminar 2018 the perfect low cost alternative to Photoshop? Well, there are some issues at present with the basic functionalty which will have you pulling your hair out. For example, basic functions such as Clone & Stamp and Erase don't yet function perfectly. There are issues with both. That's not to say that they don't work, just that they don't work 100% of the time.For the most part, yes, if the edit is relatively simple such as removing blemishes from a photo, for example a tiny bird in the background, or even blemishes on the camers sensor that have made it on to the photo, yes, it works really well. However, try to remove something more sizeable and it is likely that you will hit a problem. In an earlier article I showed how to remove a power line from a photo and I did this using Luminar so perhaps take a look there for more information. Clone & Stamp is equally hit and miss. What does work well are the cropping and rotate functions. These work as expected. Another area for compromise is the aplication of backgrounds. If you have green screened your subject in a studio then fine, using a luminosity mask will produce pretty much flawless results but for anything else, let's say a complex landscape with trees or non solid edges where you'd like to replace the sky, you are going to need your wits about you. It is possible to achieve a good result with patience but products such as Photoshop and ON1 Photo Raw are more advanced in this area. While Luminar 2018 does struggle in some basic areas, I haven't found this to be insurmountable. 

With regards general usage, Luminar 2018 is very easy to get to grips with. Since the last maintenance release the developers have added Layers which are extremely useful for grouping filters, especially where the global strength of the filters applied are the same or very similar. I tend to seperate groups of filters just to make it easy to go back and edit something. You can turn off the effects of each layer to help you understand whether what you done is an improvement or detrimental to your image. Another useful feature is the ability to add a second image layer and the ability to add textures. When combined with a luminosity mask, this makes it reasonably easy to change the background, albeit with the concerns outlined in previous paragraphs. Nonetheless, it does allow you to create some stunning images such as the one shown below. This image, taken during a recent photo shoot at Paignton Photography Club, was first processed using PortraitPro 17 Studio, which is an excellent application when working on faces, and then taken into Luminar for final processing where the background image and various other filters were applied. 

Model Lianne taken during a recent night at PPC.

I hope that the information provided above interests you enough to give Luminar 2018 a try. For those that wish to do so, there is a free to try version of Luminar 2018 at https://skylum.com/blog/preorder-luminar-2018-today - just choose the TRY option. If you have any questions about Luminar 2018, bearing on mind I am only using the Windows version, don't hesitate to get in contact.

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Dave Collerton

Photo Editing - Lightroom Alternatives

Photo Editing - Lightroom Alternatives

Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop are two of the stand-out photo editing software products of our generation. But what if you don't want to pay monthly for the privilidge of using Lightroom, what's available today that provide worthy competition?

Recently I have looked at a number of usable and reasonably priced photo editing products, all hoping to take on Lightroom and Photoshop and indeed, beat them at their own game. These include Photoscape X Pro from Microsoft, ON1 Photo Raw from ON1, DxO PhotoLab (and DxO Film Pack 5) from DxO, PhotoDirector from Cyberlink and Luminar 2018 Win from Skylum. While not an exhaustive list, these all represent affordable alternatives to Adobe and are all in themselves, quite capable photo editors. In looking at the various editors available I have also come into contact with and used Silkypix, which is mostly associated with the Panasonic RAW format (although strangly it also works on Canon CR2 RAW format) and PortraitPro 17, which is best suited to portraiture.

Where most of these editors break down, and I'll tackle this issue first, is that none really include any useable form of digital asset management or DAM as it is more usefully referred to. A DAM catalogues your photos and enables you to fully track every change to a photograph making it possible to go back to any point and branch off from there with a different perspective or variant. For professional photographers a DAM is often considered a "must have" when considering the purchase and use of a photo editor. Adobe include a DAM in it's most popular editor, Lightroom and there is also a stand alone DAM in Adobe Bridge, which can be also used with other 3rd party products.

If a DAM is vitally important to you, and you need it today, then Adobe Lightroom is for you at this point in time unless you are happy to compromise and use a 3rd party product such as Adobe Bridge or XNviewMP, both of which offer good functionality and the ability to work reasonably seamlessly with other products. I have used XNviewMP with Luminar 2018 Windows and Photoscape X Pro and it handles RAW files from all the cameras I own without issue. This includes RW2, CR2 and NEF RAW files.

Another negative for many is lack of colour management. This can be a major problem if your primary output is in print rather than say for digital consumption. Again if this is a key factor in your selection process then Lightroom and Photoshop are going to be your best options today. Few other products, and certinly those I've mentioned above, don't really have the same level of functionality in this area as do Adobe products. This means it can be a bit of a lottery when printing your photos as it is almost impossible to match what you see on the screen with what you see when printed. 

Moving on, with these key factors out of the way, how do these other products stack up to the functionality of Lightroom and Photoshop? The truth is really well. None of the products I have mentioned require significant learning curves, in fact, they all work in a similar way and apart from having to learn the layouts of each editor, most use a similar subset of tools to help you create the look you desire for any photograph. Of these tools, perhaps the most important of these are presets which we will talk about next.

A preset is basically a combination of individual filters and effects designed to creat a specific look. For example, you can use a preset to turn a colour image into a B&W image, to add highlights or lowlights, to make an image softer or sharper, or perhaps more dramatic. These, together with Look Up Tables (LUT's) provide you with many fully customisable combinations to play around with. You can either just choose a preset and have done, or change the parameters of any of the filters to fine tune the look you are aiming for. You can also add additional filters of course. Presets are without doubt a fantastic start point for many projects. And since presets are common to almost every photo editor on the market today, you can pretty much use any editor that you feel comfortable with.

For those that prefer manual editing, all of the software products mentioned allow complete manual control over your image. Luminar for example provides two useful tools, a RAW developer and what's called Accent Ai-Filter, which basically is like a magic wand that enhances many aspects of a photo prior to further editing. RAW development is also a key feature of DxO PhotoLab but here it's taken to a completely new level in that DxO, best known perhaps for it's optics database, is able to provide fully autmatic corrections for many camera and lens combinations. This removes lens distortions and chromatic abberations without any human intervention and means that you are starting with the best possible image for final editing. Like Luminar, ON1, Photo Director and DxO include a number of useful presets as starting points for development of your image. Although not alone in this feature, Luminar in particular appears to have access to a vast range of presets due to many 3rd party developers working on the product. If you are into LUT's, again Luminar is up to the mark here as any .cube LUT can be added quickly and easily to the core product. I have added many free preset packs and LUT's to Luminar to increase it's functionality. Be aware though, like on Sky TV, you can spend an inordinate amount of time searching for the right look rather than just getting on with the job. Sometimes it is simply better to work manually.

Of all of the above, I found Photoscape X Pro perhaps the easiest product to use and get around. It's a really good photo editor with a lot of useful and intuitive tools. With a free to use version, and a pro version at under £30 to buy outright, it's without doubt the cheapest of all of the products i have tried out. To be fair, the free version is really good but it was so cheap and usable that I did buy the Pro version. It's a quick and easy "go to editor" for getting stuff done and there are a lot of features I really like. Included with Photoscape X Pro are a number of film emulations (presets by any other name) and some interesting backgrounds and overlays. Many more are available when you buy the Pro version.

PhotoScape X Pro - An excellent sub £30 photo editor. Here i've applied an overlay to create an abstract image
Fully edited with PhotoScape X Pro with background removed and cross processing applied

I'll review Luminar 2018 Windows soon as I have a lot of experience with this product and with the new version due at the end of this month, it's hoped that some of the areas it struggles with will have been rectified. As it is, it's a really good editor that's improving with each minor release. Again, at under £70 to purchase, it's a very cost effective alternative to Adobe Photoshop (it also works as a plugin to Photoshop) and once the DAM is released at the end of this year, it could be a lightroom killer.

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